Smart branding and marketing are key to gaining global impact. Unilever, McDonald’s, Apple and Google have marketing budgets of well over $1 billion each. Worldwide, companies spend about  $1 trillion a year on marketing and advertising. But for the biggest creative agencies, what is the hardest sell of all?

In September, the United Nations will finalize the Sustainable Development Goals, the international community’s plan to end poverty, protect the planet and much more besides. After two years of deliberation and discussion, nations have finally agreed on 17 goals, ranging from protecting the oceans to improving maternal health.

These are all laudable goals. Few would disagree that they are worth striving for. But the goals will fail unless every man, woman and child on this planet is aware of them. Seven billion people need to know about them. This makes the goals the biggest marketing job in history. They already face an uphill struggle. Although they were discussed at Davos, the media has paid scant attention. Irish rock star Bono has quipped that they sound like a “bad heavy metal band”. He has proposed renaming them the Mandela or Malala Goals.

Painstakingly crafted by the little-understood machinery of international diplomacy, the goals are a vast set of aspirations which may not lend themselves easily to good branding practice. The world’s leading medical journal The Lancet launched a vitriolic attack: “The SDGs are fairy tales, dressed in the bureaucratese of intergovernmental narcissism, adorned with the robes of multilateral paralysis, and poisoned by the acid of nation-state failure. Yet this is served up as our future.”

While no one could argue that the language needs improvement, the goals are not the omnishambles portrayed by The Lancet. The SDGs have significant potential to inspire and guide public debate and action on future economic development. But they need buy-in from everyone, which requires less jargon and sharp branding; intergovernmental processes do not lend themselves to this.

Simplicity and clarity are important

The SDGs’ immediate predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), end in 2015. The MDGs were shorter and sharper with just eight goals: eradicate extreme poverty, universal primary education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, HIV/Aids and malaria, environment, strong global partnerships.

This simplicity and clarity is important. Bill Gates argues that the MDGs set out a list of priorities that focused financial and other resources from foundations and development agencies. The first goal on poverty (defined as living on less than $1.25 a day) was met before the 2015 deadline and progress has been made on several others. Many argue that success was in large part attributable to factors outside the MDGs themselves, such as Chinese economic growth, which lifted millions out of extreme poverty, the work of public-private partnerships with focused objectives.

But the MDGs were not a public relations success. Their branding was weak and public awareness was mostly limited to the development community. With the proposal for 17 sprawling goals, the SDGs combine social and environmental challenges and have an even larger mountain to climb. But it is not impossible.

Celebrity fire-power has been enlisted. Matt Damon, Jody Williams and Malala Yousafzai are among the big names who have joined forces on action/2015. This global campaign seeks to secure successful outcomes for the UN Summit in September, which will adopt the goals, and another in December, which will bring the world a new global agreement on climate change. UK pop star Chris Martin and film director Richard Curtis will work together via the Global Citizen initiative this year to make the SDGs a household name via international festivals.

SDGs need a human face

But are big names enough? Celebrities can grab your attention, but in today’s world of information overload it isn’t enough to make people care. Digital marketers are telling us that celebrities alone are not enough to drive social sharing. At the 2014 Superbowl, 93% of people watching on TV didn’t realize that an ad with Bob Dylan was for Chrysler. People are more motivated to share content if it shows ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Ditto for the goals:  they must have a human face. How to do this? A popular approach coming from the international development world is to rely on iconic names. Curtis told the UN recently: “The SDGs are the Mandela goals, the Gandhi goals, the Anne Frank goals, and the Abraham Lincoln goals; they are all the goals of the greatest leaders of our countries.”

But will this suffice? We need the world’s best branding and marketing minds to work on this. The strongest brands today – Apple, Google, Starbucks – stand out from the crowd because, in the words of Harvard Business School’s Youngme Moon, “at some fundamental level they have made a commitment to not taking the status quo for granted.” She describes the key characteristics of exceptional brands: they offer something that is hard to come by; they reflect a commitment to a big idea; and they tend to be intensely human, or acutely sensitive to the complexities of the human spirit. Beyond the bureaucratic language, this is the heart of the SDGs.

The SDGs need two things for success. As Horton rightly says, they must be based on the underlying scientific knowledge of sustainability both of people and planet, acknowledging all its uncertainties; a recent report from the International Council for Science concludes that the goals are on the right side of science.

And they need to mean something not only to nations but also to organizations, companies and people everywhere. For this, they must be crystal-clear, simple and inspirational. As a brand, the SDGs must be as recognizable as Google or Coca-Cola. Admittedly, this is a tall order, but as neuroeconomist Gregory Berns said: “A person can have the greatest idea in the world. But if that person can’t convince enough other people, it doesn’t matter.”

In September, the goals go before the UN General Assembly for final agreement in 2015. We challenge the world’s leading branding experts and digital marketers to take on this project as a mission for humanity. To unify the goals with one big idea that resonates with people everywhere.

This is the pro bono marketing challenge of the 21st century. After all, the UN’s success is our success; its failure, our failure.

Author: Denise Young is head of communications at the International Council for Science; Owen Gaffney is director of international media strategy at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a writer for Future Earth.

Image: A man looks on as he collects recyclable materials in an area where old residential buildings are being demolished to make room for new ones in Jinan, Shandong province, January 17, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer